Polar Bear Listed as Threatened

Polar TropperThe American government listed polar bears as a threatened species this week, owing to a drastic reduction in Arctic sea ice, but insisted the step did not mark a policy shift to attack global warming.

The announcement by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne on Wednesday amounted to the government’s first use of the Endangered Species Act to acknowledge the loss of an animal habitat caused by climate change.

“While the legal standards under the ESA compel me to list the polar bear as threatened, I want to make clear that this listing will not stop global climate change or prevent any sea ice from melting,” Kempthorne told a news conference.

“Any real solution requires action by all major economies for it to be effective,” he said, echoing President George W. Bush’s reasons for renouncing the Kyoto treaty on global warming.

The Interior Department said that under the ESA, a listing of “threatened” means that a species is at risk of becoming “endangered” within the near future. It is listed as endangered when it faces imminent extinction.

The polar bear now comes under federal protection, but officials were vague about what that would mean in practice, and stressed there would be no halt to oil and gas drilling in the bears’ frozen habitat.

Dale Hall, director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said he did not want to “prejudge recommendations” by government scientists on how best to protect the bears now.

The Bush administration supports energy exploration in an Alaska wildlife refuge, adamant that industry regulations already exist to protect species such as polar bears, whales, seals and walruses.

Kempthorne did detail greater steps to monitor polar bear populations in Alaska and outlying islands in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, where the US government this year has sold new leases for oil and gas production.

Hunting of polar bears is already restricted under US law after their numbers fell as low as 12,000 in the 1960s, and Kempthorne said ice melting posed the greatest danger now, not energy production or indigenous peoples.

The iconic bears’ population has rebounded to an estimated 20,000-25,000, two-thirds of them in Canada, but Kempthorne said they were “likely to become in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future” without preventive action.

Canadian Environment Minister John Baird said he was not planning to replicate the US designation, arguing that Canada’s larger polar bear population was “very different” to America’s.

But Baird said he would list the bears as being at risk “in a heartbeat,” in line with a Canadian scientific panel’s recommendations last month.

The committee had recommended designating Canadian polar bears as a species “of special concern,” but not one imminently threatened with extinction.

The US interior secretary displayed satellite images showing Arctic sea ice had fallen to its lowest level ever recorded, 39 percent below the long-term average from 1979 to 2000.

“Today’s decision is a tremendous victory for one of the world’s most iconic and charismatic animals,” said Carter Roberts, president of the US arm of the World Wildlife Fund.

“The other big winner today is sound science, which has clearly trumped politics, providing polar bears a new lease on life,” he said.

But WWF and other environmental groups also stressed that the US government, which has resisted all legal efforts to parlay the ESA into a law against climate change, had to address the underlying cause: greenhouse gas emissions.

“Federal protection represents only the tip of the iceberg if Americans want to save the polar bear,” said Betsy Loyless, senior vice president of the National Audubon Society.

“Listing the bear as threatened is not going to save it if we continue to melt (ice) and drill its habitat,” she said.

Edward Markey, the Democratic chairman of the House of Representatives select committee on global warming, said that at the same time, the US government was allowing Arctic oil and gas drilling to continue “unchecked.”

“Essentially, the administration is giving a gift to Big Oil, and short shrift to the polar bear,” he said.

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